The 'Fakahatchee Hilton' — A getaway worth checking out, even if you can't check in
Updated: May 22, 2022
AT THE “Fakahatchee Hilton,’’ solitude is a five-star amenity.
There are no bellhops, no room service, no king beds with 1,000-thread-count, Egyptian-cotton sheets. There’s not even air conditioning. But for weary travelers off the beaten trail, there is comfort, scenery and an expansive lobby next to a watering hole popular with the local lounge lizards.
You won’t find this “Hilton” on hotels.com. But if you hike two miles down a rugged trail in a patch of South Florida wilderness known as the “Amazon of North America,’’ you can’t miss it.
Like a mirage, a primitive cabin of lumber and corrugated aluminum appears out of the cypress, royal palms and sawgrass deep inside Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.
“Est. 1957 Fakahatchee Hilton,’’ reads a shiny plaque next to the front door, a nickname rooted in the shared reactions of tired hikers who happen upon it.
“Everything is relative, but if you have no shelter and it's raining and it's hot, that cabin is like the Hilton. That place is like, ‘Get me in there. I need to go in and get out of the weather,’’’ said Craig Britton, a retired Miami firefighter who has been looking after the place for the last 40 years or so.
Sorry, but Britton doesn’t take reservations. Only a few trusted guests get keys to this castle, usually for two- or three-day stays in the winter.
Visitors, though, are welcome to rest on the shaded porch, the only part of the “Hilton” open to the public. “Please take all trash with you,’’ reads a sign on the locked front door between a porch swing and a hand-cranked water pump.
The front porch connects to a boardwalk that leads out back to a dock on a scenic lake patrolled by alligators. And across the grassy front yard, not far from a fire pit and non-working fire hydrant (a gag gift to Britton from some firefighter pals) is an outhouse.
“It’s such a photogenic, classic old cabin,’’ Britton said. “All that's missing is a rocking chair and granny sitting on it with a shotgun.''
Forty miles west of the nearest actual Hilton (the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa), the “Fakahatchee Hilton” is a unique rest stop tucked inside the largest and least developed of Florida's 175 state parks.
Roughly 100,000 acres, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is a swamp forest oriented north to south, 25 miles long and seven miles wide. It harbors one of the largest and most diverse concentrations of native orchids in North America. Florida Panthers roam there.
A lesser known feature is the “Hilton,” for decades something of an open secret among “Faka-hackers,” "Sunshiners,’’ artists, photographers and other park regulars. For first-time visitors, it's a from-out-of-nowhere surprise.
“It’s kind of like being part of a 'Scooby Doo' team and coming across a haunted house,’’ said Karlos Rodriguez Bernart, who has been leading bike tours through the park for nine years.
“It's just totally unexpected to come across that in the middle of the swamp,’’ he said. “It’s really a unique feature.’’
It’s actually one of nearly 900 private in-holdings scattered throughout the strand, many of them vacant tracts, several with crumbling shacks and cabins, some bought before the state started acquiring land for the park in 1974.
The “Hilton,” as regulars know it, is the only private property in the park shared with the public, a fact not openly broadcast by the state or the army of volunteers who help maintain the park.
“We don't really advertise it to the entire world,’’ said Francine Stevens, executive director of the non-profit Friends of the Fakahatchee.
The closest official promotion can be found on a “wayfinding kiosk,” erected throughout the park in March 2021, with maps of nearby trails along with a brief mention of “the Hilton.’’
The kiosk is at the south entrance to the East Main Tram, an old railroad-turned-hiking path that runs north two miles to the cabin and continues another eight miles to Alligator Alley.
“When people call me and they ask me, ‘Can we hike the trails?’ I say, ‘Yes. One of the most interesting trails you might find is the one that'll lead you to this very primitive cabin,’’’ Stevens said.
On social media, visitors have promoted the “Hilton” with selfies, videos and photos, including some posted in the days after hurricanes showing the stubborn cabin with only minor damage.
“It's almost a miracle that it's still standing,’’ Stevens said.
For 63 years, the “Hilton” has stood as a surviving symbol of an era when unbridled development threatened to destroy the southwest Florida interior.
From 1944 to 1954, a timber company built roughly 192 miles of tram roads in the Fakahatchee strand to haul out logs of bald cypress harvested from the swamps. Cabins were built to shelter logging supervisors.
When logging was banned in the late 1950s, the trams were abandoned; some would become access trails used today by park visitors.
But not long after the loggers left, the area faced another threat when the Gulf American Land Corp. purchased the land. The company scammed out-of-state customers into buying buildable lots that were barely buildable at all.
Mass development never occurred and the company, which eventually pleaded guilty to charges of misleading sales tactics, tried selling the land as a hunting preserve.
When the state stepped in and started acquiring acres for the park in 1974, the privately-owned tracts remained, including the “Hilton.”
“The state park grew up around it. We were there first,’’ Britton said.
It was first known as “Ballard Camp,” after a Miami man, Robert Ballard, who acquired the land from two loggers from Homestead. The loggers built the cabin in 1957 for hunting, Britton said.
The cabin’s original footprint was about 25 feet or so from its current spot near a ditch, where it was blown in 1960 by Hurricane Donna.
“The owners at the time jacked it up and put timbers under it. That’s why it's kind of hanging out over the water. It's actually better because now you have a front yard,’’ said Britton, who trucks in a mower at least once a year to cut the grass.
“It's been through a lot of hurricanes, Andrew and Wilma and Irma, and it’s still hanging in there. It looks today like it did in 1960.’’
Britton started visiting the cabin in the late 1970s on hunting trips with two men he worked for — Ballard, a World War II veteran who served as state commander of the Florida National Guard, and his son Art Ballard.
“In the old days, when we were younger, we would hunt out there and we would be gone all day in the swamp and at the end of the day when you came back hot, tired, wet and buggy that cabin looked like the Hilton,’’ he said.
He fell in love with the park. After hunting was banned in 1986, to protect the endangered Florida panther, he and Art Ballard kept visiting the “Hilton” and became its de facto caretakers.
“Things to me that are old Florida, there's not much left. I try to preserve them,’’ said Britton, a property manager who lives in the Florida Keys.
“We had a lot of good times there when we were hunting and roaming all through the Fakahatchee. Now we go in there in winter just as an escape to get away. It’s a pretty cool place.’’
Few have been inside the “Fakahatchee Hilton.’’ Those who haven’t aren’t missing much, Britton said.
Four bunk beds, a dining room table, a propane stove, a counter and cabinets. On the walls are “a couple of deer horns” and a “Home Sweet Home” sign, given to Britton 30 years ago by his sister. Most of the six windows are boarded up.
“It’s pretty simple, pretty bland,’’ he said.
About 25 years ago, Britton started trimming the bushes behind the cabin to create a view of the lake. “One thing led to another, I decided to build that boardwalk out there, which was the best thing I ever did,’’ he said.
“I got a little transistor radio so I can listen to the outside world,’’ he said. “You bring a cooler full of ice and you stay two or three days in cooler months. It’s beautiful.’’
But it’s not for everyone.
“I wouldn't want to stay there,’’ said Stevens of the Friends of the Fakahatchee. “It's a very rustic cabin and I don't mind rustic, but that's just not my cup of tea.’’
Other visitors have included Boy Scouts, the Sierra Club, park rangers, biologists, bicyclists. On Thanksgiving Day a few years ago, one visitor enjoyed a turkey dinner on the porch.
Photographer Clyde Butcher stopped by the “Hilton” one day on a break from photographing orchids and air plants.
“He was sitting on the porch,’’ Britton said. “I begged him, ‘You’ve got to take a picture of the cabin.’ He did and I never got it. I heard through the grapevine that he didn't like how it turned out.’’
About four years ago, a cell phone company from Finland filmed a commercial at the “Hilton.’’
“They had two guys in the ad campaign who would go to places in America and have adventures and this one showed them at the cabin,’’ Britton said. “They went out there with a crew of 30 people and spent 12 hours filming.’’
For Fakahatchee regulars like Bryan Hiveley, the “Hilton” is a destination.
“It’s an amazing place,’’ he said. “You get a super sense of aloneness when you’re there.’’
Hiking to the cabin one day in March, Hiveley soon discovered he wasn’t alone. Halfway up the East Tram, he encountered a panther lounging on the path about 30 feet in front of him.
“I came around the corner and he was kind of rolling around and he looked right at me,’’ he said. “He looked away and kept rolling around. Then a mink ran in front of him and he ran off into the bushes after it.’’
Assuming his encounter was over, Hively said he crouched down to see if he could get a view of the panther through the bushes. To his surprise, the animal trotted back out to the path.
“He looked at me and froze. He stayed frozen for three or four minutes,’’ he said.
The panther trotted away after Hively was able to take a photo. When he arrived at the “Hilton’’ a few minutes later, he sat at the dock and relished his wildlife encounter.
“I’ve been there so many times and not seen anything,’’ he said. “The panther is like the grand prize.’’
For the most part, visitors have respected the place and taken their trash with them, except for a forgotten water bottle now and then.
“This place is paradise and so innocently prehistoric,’’ said Kevin Songer, a nature artist whose visits to the “Hilton” have inspired wood carvings. “What is fascinating to me is just how many alligators, big and little, inhabit the lake.’’
Some visitors, though, have fed the gators — a major no-no because it changes the behavior of the reptiles and requires their removal.
“That’s why there’s a sign out there to not feed them,’’ Britton said.
As for the shiny “Fakahatchee Hilton” sign at the door, it went up about 15 years ago, Britton said, a gift from a client in the Keys who visited the cabin.
“When I first put it up, my wife said, ‘The Hilton people are going to come after you. They’re going to get upset and sue you,’’’ he recalled, laughing.
“I said, ‘The Hilton people have got a lot bigger fish to fry than me.’ They might just get a kick out of it.’’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.